Too Much and Still Not Enough: Mourning Aretha Franklin

The funerals of my Muslim childhood were quick and modest. But I've learned to love the extended gospel funeral. Aretha's homegoing reminded me why.
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Chaka Khan performs at the funeral for Aretha Franklin at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan, on August 31st, 2018.

Chaka Khan performs at the funeral for Aretha Franklin at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan, on August 31st, 2018.

It took eight full hours and a band of preachers and singers slipping out of their shoes before shaking the church walls down and old friends pacing through old memories and Cicely Tyson's hat casting a wide shadow over her eyes while she read a repurposed poem and showed she could still hold a room in her steady palm—Cicely, our forever Godmother, who was helped offstage by three men, so the viewer understood what it took for her to be up there. It took dancing in the aisles of a church, and men hollering cries of affirmation—a "go 'head!" or a "don't stop now!" when a speaker caught a good groove. It took even the non-preachers becoming preachers, all voices on hand to erase any distinctions between the moment and the Gospel. It took all of this, but last Friday evening, Miss Aretha Franklin finally made it home.

For many of us, the process lasted a full work day and then some, with viewers glued to their computer monitors or sneaking glances at a communal television to see what was coming next. I watched the second half of the funeral from a hotel room in Georgia, where I fought back tears when former NBA player Isaiah Thomas told stories of how Aretha helped raise him into a better man than he'd been, and where I yawned when Clive Davis lovingly droned on about the mechanics of Aretha's singing, and where I cringed during the scolding, 50-minute eulogy by pastor Jasper Williams Jr., a tone-deaf jeremiad that spanned everything from black-on-black crime to the ways single mothers were failing to raise their black sons, delivered while Aretha Franklin—a single mother to four boys—rested right before him.

When all the preaching had been preached and the other songs had been worn down to echoes and every memory had been rebuilt wide enough for every listener to crawl into, there was Stevie Wonder, Aretha's old friend, singing one last number before she was carried out of the church and on to her final resting place.

In the final, swelling moments of Aretha's homegoing, I thought about what it is to send someone home proper; how even the sending, when done right, can be a performance on par with the way a person lived. On his death, the Portuguese soccer player Eusébio was placed in a towering, gold casket, which was then carried in circles around the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon, where he'd played for years. Michael Jackson's casket was plated with 14-karat gold and lined with velvet for a three-hour ceremony that filled the Staples Center and even left a crowd outside. Nearly 200 years ago, in March of 1827, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Vienna, bearing torches to mourn Ludwig Van Beethoven. As Aretha's body and services were being prepared last week, John McCain's casket traversed the country he once fought for and then served, to appear at a funeral service in Arizona and then another in Washington, D.C. The far-reaching spectacle of the Great American Funeral is powerful for many, especially those who can score an invitation and afford to attend. And it's powerful for me too, even though I first encountered death rites in their opposite form: one of frugal brevity.

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In Islam, the body must be buried as soon as possible, depending on the means of those doing the burying, and on the time of death. The post-death ritual is simple, and revolves largely around cleaning and then shrouding of the body in a white, cotton cloth before placing it in a closed and modest casket. The funeral service is short, as a community comes together to offer collective prayers for the forgiveness of the dead. My earliest funeral experiences were like that: brief, without ceremony, an emotional severing before a send-off. After praying, we carry a body to the graveyard, where it must be placed in a grave angled in the direction of Mecca, so that the body faces the holy city. According to Islamic law, the grave marker cannot be raised more than 12 inches above the ground, with no sprawling or decadent grave markers. In Sunni Islam, there is a tiered timeline of mourning periods: 15 days for loved ones and relatives, and four months and 10 days for widows.

When I was young, after two or so funerals, I began to imagine this process as a type of gift, a mercy for someone who'd lived and now got to see whatever awaited them on the other side of life's end. I imagined the swiftness of the funeral as a service to the dead: to spare keeping them here with our grief, and instead to send them into the waiting arms of heaven, where they are not mourned but welcomed—some endless sky where they sit and wait for everyone they've ever loved to join them, where the years feel like the mere passing of minutes.

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The first time I attended a black funeral in a church, I was 17, and my legs ached from having to stand for more than 20 minutes straight. I walked with awe past the open casket, richly adorned with fabrics and flowers. At the two-and-a-half-hour mark, I went outside to see a fleet of cars waiting to take attendees off to a graveyard. There was singing, and wailing, and composure lost and gained only to be lost again. Before that day, it had only briefly occurred to me that there was another way to acknowledge someone's death. So much of my upbringing had revolved around death and loss as a short, structured, reserved period, where the visible outpouring of emotion was surprising at best, and shameful at worst.

The joke many black people made online as Aretha's service dragged along into its fifth, then sixth, then seventh hour was that we all saw this coming. As folks tuned out and tuned back in only to see the ceremony still happening, as some scanned the pre-printed funeral agenda to see that nearly every guest speaker and performer had gone well over their allotted time, there were some who kicked back and said what did you expect?

At this point in my life, I have attended far more non-Islamic homegoings than Islamic ones, so I'm no longer shocked by how time can tick away in honor of someone's living; how, in the moment, it all feels like the least one can do to honor the dead. But even the most seasoned of my kinfolk knew Aretha's homegoing was equal parts too much and still somehow not enough. But it kept her with us for a few precious extra hours. Some of the reverends dozed off, and toward the eighth hour, some of the church women's heads leaned all the way back in their pews while their mouths hung open, and some of the people left early, and many of my people clapped their hands together with joy and said look what we can do.

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And I was sad, watching Aretha Franklin's homegoing and knowing it had to end sometime, or knowing I'd have to tear myself away from it, because that meant I would finally have to say goodbye to one part of my grief—the part that held on to Aretha as an earthly being. And perhaps all elaborate, prolonged measures in homegoing are just that: an attempt to stretch out a person's time on Earth for as long as we can, whether by driving a casket around a soccer stadium or flying a body across a country or slipping off shoes and drawing out every last note of a song while onlookers flood the aisles of a church and raise a single hand in praise. Even writing this, I am clinging to Aretha Franklin's casket and trying to bring it back for just a little bit longer, even though I know it is gone in some ground. I am trying to recreate what I know I saw in hopes that the memory echoes and you and I are both transported back to a time when she was still being celebrated by a people who never wanted the celebration to end.

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